Despite fiscal fears, legit expansion continues

WASHINGTON — Look out, L.A.: Washington, D.C., has quietly slipped past you as the nation’s second liveliest theater town, at least in terms of numbers.

Some 70 professional theaters in the D.C. area produced a whopping 360 productions in 2002, edging L.A. and its reported 350 shows during the period. So says the Washington Theater Awards Society, which promotes local theater with its annual Helen Hayes Awards and other activities. It also says 83 professional theaters claim to be actively producing here, up from only 14 when the awards debuted 19 years ago.

Growth continues, including an architectural explosion of capital building campaigns being waged by theaters, dance companies and other cultural groups that are collectively attempting to raise a staggering $2.5 billion in funding.

That figure includes numerous projects in the pipeline in excess of $75 million, led by the Kennedy Center’s $250 million construction campaign. Other mammoth projects are under way at Arena Stage ($100 million-plus), the Shakespeare Theater ($77 million), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art ($160 million).

Still others are afoot at Arlington, Va.’s, Signature Theater, D.C.’s Studio, Woolly Mammoth and Gala Hispanic Theaters, the Phillips Collection, the Newseum, the Smithsonian and the Atlas Theater.

Impressive projects also are ringing the D.C. Beltway. In nearby Montgomery County, Md., some $230 million in arts construction includes the 2,000-seat Music Center at Strathmore, the American Film Institute’s fancy new AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, the Olney Theater and the Round House Theater. In Fairfax County, Va., a $10.6 million arts education facility at Wolf Trap opens in June.

But some insiders fear the seeds of failure may be sown by such success, at least in the short term. The tough climate for fundraising has hampered the ability of many arts orgs to meet goals set under more auspicious skies. For some, that will almost certainly mean a delay in projects.

“A number of these campaigns got to the halfway point and then the bottom fell out,” says one arts donor.

While a shrinking coterie of funders is still able to help, the economy has rendered many dedicated individual arts supporters here unable to meet their current commitments or consider new ones. Meanwhile, sizable cuts are pending from strapped local government arts agencies. “It’s horrible out there,” moans one theater exec, voicing the national problem.

The economic storm also has forced a change in priorities among some local philanthropic organizations that have suddenly become more concerned with helping previously supported orgs sustain their operations. New endeavors need not apply.

“Those 83 theaters are all calling me,” quips Katherine Freshley, an executive with D.C.’s Eugene & Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. “Am I worried about how the capital campaigns will be funded? Yes. They may have to be stretched out.”

But Freshley also is encouraged about recent developments on the fundraising front.

A new regional strategy is being formed among area donors, government agencies, private industry and others to collectively help arts orgs grow. It is headed by Washington Grantmakers, a philanthropic network of more than 130 local donors, partnering with nonprofits and governments.

The initiative, similar to ones launched elsewhere, is called “Unifying Our Creative Capital: A Regional Cultural Plan.” It will start by quantifying the economic and social impact of the creative arts, often billed as the No. 2 industry in this fast-growing white-collar region. Available data on audiences, economic development and other relevant research will be collected.

Another recent initiative from Washington Grantmakers is an online funding vehicle that enables anyone to make direct contributions, or volunteer, to any local nonprofit organization. Called “Touch D.C.: A Coalition to Mobilize Giving,” it reportedly has had an immediate impact on donations.

Yet another positive sign: Despite the dour economy and fears of terrorism, many area theaters are enjoying a boffo season of “must-see” productions. At Arlington’s Signature, for example, an eight-week run of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” was sold out before its April 7 opening.

Meanwhile, the artistic challenges posed by all the new construction worries Joy Zinoman, founder of Studio Theater. “Can people keep their way artistically while their energies go toward the building projects, and will the work in those theaters stay commensurate with the new facility?” she asks.

Zinoman says she is astounded by the plethora of tiny professional theaters being opened here by eager young entrepreneurs, many of whom pass through her directing class at Studio Theater’s Acting Conservatory. “When each one comes in, I ask, ‘Why do you want to study directing?'” says Zinoman. “Two-thirds of them reply, ‘Because I want to start a theater.’ “

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